November 12, 2012

Thinking Around Corners

Filed under: Career Advice,Creativity,Leadership — Joe Grant @ 11:50 am

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Been to any meetings lately where people yak about problems but don’t solve them? Plenty, I’ll bet. Here’s why it happens: bosses train their employees not to solve problems.

You think I’m kidding? At the next opportunity, audit one of your internal meetings. Tell the folks you’re there merely to observe the process then keep your mouth shut. If they swirl around an issue without resolution, if they look at you for cues, or ask you what they should do, you’ll know you’ve got a group that can’t think for themselves and that you’re just a well-paid bottleneck.

How did these people become such sheep? Well, owners with their names on the door often enjoy a sort of unhealthy validation when they gift their subjects with “the answer.” They’ll complain they can’t delegate to the staff because “. . . they never have any good ideas.” And that’s true — because they’ve been schooled to come to Papa for answers, not generate their own.

Take heart. You can do something about it.

Don’t let people dump their problems in your office like the family pet dropping a trophy mouse at the master’s feet. Break the habit by demanding that anyone who brings you a problem also recommends solutions. And not just a stab-in-the-dark idea, but a handful of possible options, A, B, C, D & E, with a concluding reasoned recommendation on the best course of action. The formula is, What’s the issue, What will happen if it remains unsolved, What are several possible solutions with pros and cons, and — this is how leaders are developed — how they themselves will fix it. Make it a practice to turn away anybody approaching your desk without a solution. Even if it’s not a good one.

In fact, now and then let them prosecute their recommendations even when you know they’ll fail. There’s a legend at IBM that a junior VP once made a bad call costing the company about a million bucks and spent a sleepless weekend sure he’d be fired come Monday morning. Sure enough, even as he was putting his office doodads in boxes early Monday, the boss called. But he said, “Hold on. You’ve learned the lesson of a lifetime. You don’t think I’m going to fire someone we just spent $1 million educating, do you?”

Remember that no matter how smart you think you are you don’t hold the sole franchise on good ideas. Henry Kissinger, clearly one of our brighter public servants with no dearth of experience in world issues, taught his juniors never to plop a policy brief on his desk unless accompanied by suggested resolutions.

Thus he mined a trove of ideas while training a legion of colts to think around corners.

Problems are simply puzzles. They’re satisfying to solve and doing so builds confidence. You’ve probably gotten good at it over the years but if you’re the self-appointed protector-of-right-answers your folks will keep having meetings where all they do is rant about problems without fixing ’em. Why should they when they can visit the All Powerful Oz for answers?

And that’s the big lesson from the Emerald City, isn’t it. Dorothy and her buddies already had the keys to their issues inside themselves — all they needed was a little boost to their self-confidence from the guy behind the curtain.

Not a bad job for a Wizard, huh?

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September 11, 2012

Too Many Meetings?

Filed under: Operations — Joe Grant @ 1:42 pm

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Too many meetings at your agency? Or maybe not enough.

Don’t be like the three partners who prided themselves on “door jam” meetings where they’d settle important issues on the fly. It was casual and breezy, but too often one of the partners was unintentionally left out. In interviewing the staff as part of an agency assessment the single biggest problem was, yep, mixed messages and lousy communication.

If you’re in a company with even just 3 or 4 employees you’re part of a dynamic ever-changing organism requiring structure to stay healthy. The executive team has to meet frequently to check the company “dashboard” and make sure the gauges and dials indicate things are going right no matter what size the place is.

In running a company, two kinds of regular meetings are required: operations and policy. Operations meetings cover day-to-day things which are often trivial but can cripple if not managed — should we replace the ever-jamming copier; one of the toilets is busted; what about this year’s holiday party, etc.

Policy meetings are more high level – the pros and cons of absorbing a competitor, reviewing the hiring budget, planning for retirement of a senior partner.

Aim to spend an hour a week on ops — same day and time if possible so it becomes an easy habit. Yes, I’m serious. One hour a week is plenty; you’re there to do billable work for clients, not meeting repeatedly to solve the same problems over and over.

Schedule half-day policy meetings no less than every quarter to review the big issues and opportunities. Then, to cover the really important stuff requiring thoughtful contemplation, once a year hold a full-blown facilitated offsite retreat for a couple of days.

A sidebar here about facilitators. You’ll stay on track, get more done, and come up with many more solutions and ideas if you engage a professional facilitator familiar with your industry (find out more about what we do in this area on our website.) An objective referee will make things more productive than if you did it on your own. There’s a reason doctors don’t operate on themselves.

Meetings are tools but they’re not a multi-purpose Leatherman. A meeting is only good for three things: (1) to share information, (2) to capitalize on opportunities, and (3) to solve problems. They are not free-for-alls for attendees to pile on (“Yeh, and another thing that’s wrong around here is . . . “)

Here’s an elegant 3-part prescription we use when facilitating which will easily quadruple your meeting productivity. Start by briefly defining the issue and asking, What’s possible to achieve – what’s the ideal outcome we want? Next, ask What are the obstacles, what’s in our way? Finally (and spend the bulk of your time here): How do we remove the obstacles?

With the obstacles out of the way the path will be clear and you’ll be on your way to accomplishing your goal.

Keep it that simple and your meetings will become shorter, less frequent, and a lot more satisfying.

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July 6, 2012

One Firm, One Voice

Filed under: Leadership — Joe Grant @ 12:00 pm

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Our business attracts big egos. We’re all about opinions and judgments. That’s the wrong tone for the target audience. . . The logo’s too small. . . It’s off strategy. . . Maybe that’s why “teamwork” gets loads of lip service but when you look under the hood, it’s hardly there at all at most agencies.

Perhaps because it’s not natural.

You see, people are individuals; they focus on self-interest first. What’s in it for me? Any kindergarten teacher will tell you how tough it is getting kids to share and play nicely. You can talk all you want about man’s noble nature, egalitarianism, generosity… but those are learned behaviors.

Nevertheless, to avoid complete chaos in ad agencies and most other enterprises, we create teams – groups of individuals who pool their talents and energy to achieve specific goals. Teams are simply egos in harness.

Accenture, at least when it was still Andersen Consulting, tried to resolve the conflict between self-interest and corporate objectives with their One Firm policy which states that mutual long-term best interests outweigh self-serving and short-term decisions. People employed there say it works. If a local Accenture client at a US office, for instance, is referred for an overseas project to the London office, the British folks do the work as if it were their own client. Because it is. It’s a cultural mentality that says judgments and decisions are all about the greater good – what’s in the best interests of the firm, not the individual.

Great theory, but will it work in an ego-driven ad agency? Yes, I think so. If you keep a few principles in mind.

First, there must be a specific, overarching goal – something everyone understands, can envision, and own. It’s got to be clear, laser-sharp, penetrating, and – here’s the part often missing – it must mean something to everyone in the place.

As part of our diagnostic work we frequently interview staffers about their agency’s goal. You know what we hear? “Goal? What goal? I didn’t know the agency had one besides making more money for the owner(s).”

It’s shameful.

Think for a moment what the agency’s revenue growth means day-to-day to an admin, the junior copywriter you hired last week, or an AE handling a medium-sized account. How do they personally experience motivation and satisfaction from the corporate “make more money” goal?

Please don’t answer, They collect a salary and get to keep their jobs. If you honestly think that’s the big motivator for people, dust off your notes on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Treat people at the lowest level of personal need and that’s how they’ll behave – groveling and scratching for food and shelter and certainly not caring much about loftier goals.

Clear corporate imperatives compel. Classic examples include NASA’s goal in the ‘60’s of getting a man to the moon and back safely, Wozniak’s and Jobs’ vision of a computer on every worker’s desk (at a time when they were the size of a garage), or my favorite: Daniel Burnham, the renowned city planner responsible for Chicago’s magnificent lakefront boulevards and parks, who said, Make no small plans – they have no power to stir men’s souls.

But what about making money?

Dollars are the result of achieving the goal; they’re satisfiers not motivators. If you’re making a nice salary yourself but occasionally experience mild depression or disillusionment, re-read the last sentence. Money does not/will not make you happy – Maslow proved that conclusively.

Another thing to keep in mind is the agency goal should be both challenging and achievable. I call them “gulp goals,” something that when you say it out load the first time almost makes you gulp. There ought to be a little gasp in the room. . .  something that will stir men’s souls. You must believe and get everyone else to believe that it can be done. Some examples: Go from #9 to the top 3 in your market by the end of ’14. Sweep the local Addy awards. Or snag the largest local account from your arch competitor.

Goals like that transcend and neutralize energy-draining ego skirmishes and personal agendas. They provide focus, rally the troops, and unite egos so they pull in one direction. And that brings us back to the One Firm idea: Speak with one voice.

Goals which personally engage everyone minimize petty dustups and distractions and keep people pulling in the same direction. Everyone in your agency should be able to easily speak about (1) what the agency’s goal is and (2) what it personally means to him/her.

You always know an agency culture is strong when you walk the halls, choose a few people at random, and they all say essentially the same thing about what the agency’s trying to do – with one voice. It makes it fun to come to work when everyone’s aiming for something they believe in; certainly better than merely toiling daily to make the agency (or some guy at the end of the hall) more money.

And if someone asks, What’s in it for me? your job is to remind everyone over and over what the goal is! Think of Moses in the desert retelling how wonderful the land of milk and honey would be. Not a bad place to look forward to if you’ve been choking on dust in the desert for 40 years.

So get a goal – make it clear, specific, measurable, and check that it makes you gulp a little. Then make sure everybody understands it and that it means something to each and every one personally.

That way instead of trying to manage isolated egos charging off in different directions, you’ll be holding the reins of a few self-actualized teams stretching for and reaching their objectives.

OK. . . one of the goals can certainly be making more money.

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May 8, 2012

The Answer to Agency Training

Filed under: Career Advice,Leadership,Operations,Staying Fresh — Joe Grant @ 3:55 pm

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Brian Tracy, the well known sales trainer and author, wrote a piece a while ago, and he’s so right about this: “No matter what your job you’ve gone as far as you can with what you now know. Any progress you make from this moment onward will require that you learn and practice something new.”

But how?

Earl Nightingale hosted a popular syndicated radio program many years ago and founded the training company Nightingale-Conant. One of his aphorisms was just one hour a day of study is all it takes to get to the top.

Are you kidding me? Who has that kind of time!

But it gets worse. Nightingale actually claimed that 1 hour per day of study will put you at the top of your field within three years, in 5 years you’ll be a national authority, and in 7 years, you can be one of the best people in the world at what you do.

If he’s only half right, that’s pretty astounding.

I believe the heart of his message is valid. To get beyond what you already know,you’ve got to learn all you can about our business, particularly the “softer” skills like personal relationships, persuasion, and thinking-around-corners. Those kinds of skills which you probably didn’t study in school are what make people in the advertising and marketing arena successful, right?

The fact is you’re just not going to get much schooling of any kind in most agencies today. And with the speed of change, you can’t afford to wait for the company you work for to invest in you. To get ahead you’ve got to go get smart on your own.

Think about it: you don’t actually work for anybody anyway – you’re self-employed. No matter what level you’re at, you’re working for your own advancement, to better your life and your family’s.

So let’s get crazy for a moment. What would happen to your career if you made a decision today to invest, let’s say, 2% of your annual income back into yourself, for your own personal and professional development? It makes no sense to be cheap about your education — you’re investing in yourself!

Look at your clients. They’re constantly evolving new and improved products to be more competitive and grab more market share. Why not do the same? Nightingale claims if you do you’ll probably never have to worry about money again.

And here’s something that may strike you as over the top, but it’s worth considering. Brian Tracy says that if you read only one skill-improvement book a month, that will put you into the top 1% of income earners. If you read one hour per day in your field, that will translate into about one book per week. One book per week is 50 books a year and that’s 500 books over ten years.

If you did that I have no doubt you’ll be one of the best educated, smartest, most capable and highest paid people in our business. Regular reading will transform your life completely; it has for many others, including me. And it could’t be easier these days with Kindle and iPads.

Here’s a way to put this idea into practice.

Ask the successful people around you for their best book recommendations.Whatever advice they give you, immediately go out and buy or download those books and commit to reading for one half-hour every morning before you start work (that way you’ll eliminate the excuse of being too tired to read in the evening).

Sounds impossible, right? Yet many people spend hours in a health club “working out” and do nothing to improve their biggest asset, their heads.

I guess that’s OK if you don’t mind being stuck right where you are for a long, long time.

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March 6, 2012

RFPs: The Right Way

Filed under: Client/Agency Relations,New Business — Joe Grant @ 2:59 pm

An RFP comes your way and the prospect is right up your alley. You decide it’s Full Speed Ahead!

Here’s the first thing to remember about answering RFPs: it’s nothing more than a stand-in for you. It’s a salesman. And so it needs to be likable, concise, and focused entirely on prospect need. Just like you if you were in the room when they read it.

Appoint a battle captain – Each RFP requires a heavyweight, one of your best, with the clout to marshal the company resources so it gets done with the least amount of tears and sweat. Don’t give it to someone with time on his hands and don’t anoint a neophyte either; there’s too much at stake.

1st Draft – Have a professional writer write it, someone who despises subjunctive clauses and passive voice. Do not dole out sections to multiple authors or else it will read like a committee’s fractured report. Edit ruthlessly. Be concise. Leave out all that just-in-case fluff which can make it look like you’re throwing spaghetti on the wall to see what sticks. This is an ad for your agency – write it like one!

Focus on 1 takeaway – Like any good ad there should be a singular mental leave-behind, an inescapable shimmering message pointed directly at THEM. Even though they want the goods on you, think about it: it’s not about you, it’s really about them, right?

Which means you have to use plenty of these phrases: This is relevant to (prospect) because… This benefits you several ways… Our experience here applies directly to (prospect’s) needs because… Tie any horn-tooting to their unexpressed but ever present “what’s-this-mean-for-us” concerns.

Cautions on case histories – Fuse each to their needs — never parade a case history without tightly lacing it to their problems and opportunities. Think of it this way: your case histories have to be in effect about them. Two, maybe three are all you need or else it gets confusing. Too many or too long and your best success stories appear merely self-aggrandizing.

Art direct it – Put an art director to work making your RFP response fun and accessible. Tell a story, use cartoons, make it a joy to read. But keep in mind this is your sales guy in loco agentis so don’t go over the top or it will have the same effect as wearing a loud plaid sport coat.

Bio-prudence – Be careful about showcasing every last person in the agency. Instead, customize each bio with something like, Susie Smith will be [prospect]’s primary day-to-day contact. She’s known for…and her experience [describe] applies directly to your marketing needs becauseThe idea is to make them WANT Susie working on their business, and of course the same goes for others on your list. Throwing in too many resumes can look like you’re padding… and expensive.

Show some ankle – Imagine their surprise when buried in all those somniferous RFPs they’re plowing through, yours gives them just a little tease, a lagniappe, by showing one or two snippets of creative with their logo or product. Now you’ve got their attention and if you do it right they’ll want to see more. Bada-bing! I’m not suggesting creating full-blown campaigns, but use their name and I.D. when you can. It’s flattering.

Be memorable – Nothing’s more disappointing when we do “lost prospect” interviews (see below) than learning that the client, who chose someone else, doesn’t even remember your proposal. It means you made no impression whatsoever! Well of course they didn’t choose you — if it wasn’t crafted to be memorable, how could you possibly create arresting materials for them? Be not afraid to risk a little – you can’t lose what you don’t have.

Table appeal – Client committees often begin their decision-making meeting by laying out all the RFP proposals side by side on a conference room table. Make sure yours stands out and is immediately recognizable. Don’t be like the agency — I’m not making this up — that not only failed to have it’s name on the proposal cover, it wasn’t anywhere inside either!

Keep these suggestions in mind and let us know if your batting average improves.

Our sales pitch – We interview “lost prospects,” i.e. the ones you didn’t get, to find out why you’re not winning your share of new business. Because we’re an outside source, clients tend to give us direct answers which we use to provide you with straight-shooting recommendations on how to stop striking out. For details, call Joe Grant at 239.537.6133 direct to find out more. It’s a small investment which can pay off big.

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January 17, 2012

Make Time for a Challenge

Filed under: Career Advice,Creativity,Leadership — Joe Grant @ 2:46 pm

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You know the line about give the busy man the work and he’ll get it done? It’s true. The more you do the more you can do, but here’s a twist you may find helpful especially if you’re trying to balance all the exigencies of running a company.

You’ll do more and be more satisfied with your job, too, if you take on something challenging and stimulating in your “off” time.

There are people – you probably know some – who run high-demand businesses yet still have enough time and energy to indulge in things they enjoy and grow from. They take on “parallel challenges” in addition to their demanding professional responsibilities. Effective people know that extra challenges make them better in all dimensions.

The magic in all this, especially if you tackle some long-buried desire to do something you’ve always wanted to do, is you’ll get more done at your regular job while you make a dream come true. Take on a “Gee-it-would-be-great-to…” project and daily work chores become easier and your confidence and enthusiasm improve. Along the way your neurotransmitter connections get polished up and all those mood-plussing chemicals we keep reading about start circulating more freely.

Like a sleeping acorn harboring the potential of an oak, dormant aspirations never really go away. They just need to be dusted off and fired up. Maybe you always wanted to play the piano, learn to fly, speed read, master French cuisine, ride a motorcycle…I don’t know. What’s important is it’s a blood-pumping challenge and when you take a step in its direction other issues in your life immediately become easier.

So what’s holding you back? Money? Doubt it, probably not at this point in your life. Not enough time?

Ahh. . .time! Let’s talk about time management for a moment. It’s so often misunderstood. The key is to remember that time management is not about time at all: it’s about priorities.

Think about the following.

1) We get done what we want to get done, what matters most to us.

2) Decisions about using our time, i.e. what we do next, are based on what’s important at the moment – if you see your wastebasket burning, getting that client brief written will not be as big a priority as dousing the fire.

3) Forget about how many hours are available or how many items you check off a to-do list. Processing more minutiae will just make the wheel in your personal hamster cage spin faster. Getting the important things done – the priorities – is what makes the difference.

At the heart of all this is deciding what those priorities are and then committing to them. And if you look inside and begin to actualize a long-unfulfilled desire you’ll be making a decision which will not only make you happier, it will sharpen your judgment and heighten productivity.

I mention all this because we frequently work with senior agency executives who don’t understand after attaining considerable material success why they’re so damn disenchanted. The answer is they’ve checked off the “run my own agency” box and now need additional challenges.

If your DNA programs you for measurable accomplishment, now’s the time to stretch for something else – true happiness and satisfaction don’t come from status quo. As the artist Paul Klee said, “Becoming is superior to being.”

A great resource on this subject of time and getting the important stuff done is First Things First by Stephen Covey.

Reading it would be a good priority, huh?

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December 29, 2011

Make it Happen in ’12

Filed under: Career Advice,Leadership — Joe Grant @ 10:55 am

Ask a group what it takes to succeed in advertising and you’ll get dozens of different answers. Here’s my take … based on many years working with successful ad people in growing agencies around the country.

Read – If you don’t continually feast on new ideas, you’ll produce only flat and predictable solutions, especially now as we’re nearly overrun with new technology and media options. Suggestions: The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, Inc., Wired, and the many blogs, feeds, and tweets on every subject. It wouldn’t hurt to consult some of the classic leadership ideas of Peter Drucker or Jim Collins, either. It’s never been easier to stay au courant these days with Kindles and iPads. Every top ad guy I know reads voraciously.

Write – It’s a must for senior positions, and like tennis or golf, you can always learn to do it better. Get a coach, a teacher, a friend to critique your work – memos, plans, letters – and push yourself to improve. Don’t know how many times I’ve heard, “She’d be great for that job but can’t write a memo or plan to save her life. Let’s get someone else.” Clear compelling writing is imperative for success.

Present – Can you command a room? Just like writing, if you don’t present well you won’t make it up the ladder. Slay the butterflies by plunging into a local improv troupe to build your confidence and technique. Toastmasters is still around, it’s free, and it works, too.

Think – Strategically, that is. Everyone believes they can write a strategic plan but few even know what it is. Google “strategic planning” and you’ll drown in definitions and templates. Learn to think and write strategically or you’ll be stuck doing the little stuff for a long time.

Ask – Be curious, learn, and you’ll grow. Be inquisitive about everything and you’ll never be bored. Or boring.

Proactivate – Ours is a talent business – you need to stand out. But it takes extra work and often longer hours to separate yourself from the pack, so get used to it. Showing up just 9 to 5 and thinking “they owe me a better job” will keep you a back-marker.

Create – Progress is the product of innovation and innovation doesn’t happen unless you try new things – that’s creativity. An agency should be a Petri dish of

creative experimentation in all areas. If you’re the person who comes up with new ideas you’ll achieve more success than people who wait for things to happen to them.

Invest – When making decisions about your career, having money gives you freedom. Don’t kid yourself thinking that you’ll start saving or investing when you make bigger bucks. That’s stupid. It’s not how much you make but how diligent you are putting some of it where it will grow. And though you may be decades from even thinking about retirement, this is exactly the time to max 401k contributions and get smart about stocks. There are no pensions in advertising anymore.

Relax – A few pops after work or a quick puff on something may momentarily loosen those knots in your gut but over time that will quicksand you. Find someone who carries a lot of responsibility with ease and ask them how they deal with the pressure. Stress is a killer, but believe me there are keys you can discover to prevent your nerves from eating you alive.

The Main Thing -The real key to success is getting the important things done, not just minutiae. Anything less than a conscious commitment to the important is an unconscious commitment to the unimportant, author Stephen Covey says, and doing more things faster won’t replace doing the right things well. So figure out what will have the most impact for improving your work, your life, and your happiness and concentrate on that. You get what you focus on.

OK, enough proselytizing. Try some of the above and see if it helps provide more meaning and challenge – and success – in your career this new year.


November 14, 2011

3 Things Every Agency Owner Should Know

Filed under: Client/Agency Relations,Leadership — Joe Grant @ 2:03 pm

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1. Delegate Everything But Genius
We’ve counseled a lot of really bright creative folks over the years who’ve built their own jails and locked themselves inside. They wanted an outlet for their creativity so they started their own companies…and quickly got caught in the quicksand of “management.”

You know what that is – refereeing personality conflicts, motivating recalcitrant associates, approving supply purchases, making sure the conference room is cleaned up. . . Help!

Managing the little stuff is not what makes you successful. It’s capitalizing on your unique talents which nobody else has or can do the way you do. Anything else which distracts, upsets, perturbs, or otherwise beats you down to the point that you can’t do what you’re best at – and what you enjoy most – must be delegated or deleted. Hire it out or give it to somebody else to worry about. But don’t waste your most precious resource: you.

Your special talents are all you have to make your little enterprise work. It’s soul-splitting to create profound strategic ideas one moment and the next order paper clips. If you can’t delegate everything but what you master like no one else, get a therapist to help you understand why. Or else you’ll be welding the bars shut on your own cell.

2. It’s Not About You
Entrepreneurs can get so pumped up by contemporary can-do literature that they actually begin to believe they’re “partners” with their clients. They’ll say, “But we’re different than others – we’re true partners.”

Whoa! At the very best you’ll work determinedly to become a trusted resource, but becoming a true partner – with skin in the game, skin that bleeds? Not likely.

Think about it: a partnership is a business relationship in which you furnish part of the capital and labor for a money-making enterprise then share in subsequent profits or losses. Do you do that? No, your company merely provides a service and thinking you have a commensurate relationship with a client is a self-flattering delusion.

If you get over thinking you’re indispensable or equal it will be a lot easier doing what you’re really good at.

Truth is, it’s not about you and never has been. No matter how insightful or groundbreaking you think your contributions are, they’re merely a small part of your client’s galaxy of issues and opportunities. That’s why they don’t call you back when you wish they would – they have bigger (to them) elephants to shoot.

3. Know If Your Clients Are Happy
Market research is imperative because it’s so dangerous to “presume” what the market thinks of our products and services.

Yet in a client-centered business where relationships are based on so much more than just occasional purchases, we’re convinced we know how we’re doing.

Really? Then why do Adweek and AdAge have weekly cover stories about account firings where agency honchos misread the smoke signals and in their hubris believed their client relationships were impregnable?

Don’t rely on the account team to tell you how great things are; after all, their opinions are likely a conflict of interest. Instead consider having your relationships audited by a disinterested 3rd party because people, especially in close business relationships, aren’t comfortable telling you directly what you need to know.

They’ll complain about you to others, they’ll talk behind your back, but they won’t tell you face to face. It’s human nature – many of us can’t stand conflict. An objective survey will yield factual evidence of what needs to be improved – by both parties.

Many agencies use our Client Satisfaction Survey to improve client retention and reignite account profitability. To find out more, call or e-mail. Or read the Client Retention section on our website. As one client said, “I’m impressed the agency is actually auditing itself – it proves they’re committed to my business.”
(The above is from 15 Things Every Agency Owner Should Know. The article is available in its entirety on our home page.)

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September 12, 2011

Are Your Clients CPFs?

Filed under: Client/Agency Relations,Leadership — Joe Grant @ 9:09 am

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As a young account supe a couple of decades ago I remember it seemed like our CEO at Ketchum Pittsburgh did nothing but play golf or go to ball games and dinner with CEOs of our clients Westinghouse, ALCOA, H.J. Heinz, PPG, etc. What a life, I thought – to be paid all that money to schmooze, play golf, and have a cold one on the 19th during business hours! All while we lackeys sweated in windowless offices to get estimates approved or minor copy changes made.

Until one day there was a significant crisis involving a potential conflict of interest.

We were about to lose one of our largest blue-chip accounts (and my job would have gone, too) when the agency’s Big Guy came down the hall and announced to our account group that he’d worked things out with his close personal friend, the client CEO. Everything was fixed with a phone call.

As the years went by and more senior positions came my way, a couple of things became clear. First, no matter how diligently you worked or how good the work itself was, in this business things may get badly sideways for reasons beyond your control. Second, these pickles are best resolved by the top people – the agency president relying on the friendship and trust developed over time with his or her client counterpart.

I call it making your client a CPF – a Close Personal Friend.

Sounds a little unctuous, I suppose, until you remember that at its core business is all about relationships. . . and it’s easier to do business with a friend. Because with friends you forgive the occasional bumps and navigate rough patches knowing that your friendship will pull you both through.

It also helps to remember that clients are not just tools or a means to an end.

They’re people with families, issues, interest and hobbies, and problems, trying to do the best job they can. They deserve friendship. Some of my closest lifelong friends were once clients; our friendships have lasted way beyond mere business deals.

Agency/client relationships sustain and work best when they’re fastened firmly at the top. Because everything else is just too fragile: people come and go and reporting structures often change. So the place to attach and snug up the anchor bolts is where things are least likely to shift: at the top.

Don’t be like an agency owner we know who refuses to “get his hands dirty” by spending time with senior client people. He’s uninvolved, preferring to have his minions do that messy client stuff. That’s a mistake and in fact he’s on the way to tough times – his clients told us (through our Client Survey program) that shunning them will soon have negative consequences.

Look, it’s not all about schmoozing, that’s for sure. The agency should be held accountable for tangible outcomes and ROI, especially these days when every expenditure must be justified. Performance and measurable results are table stakes in any client/agency relationship.

But if you’re an agency principal, it’s in your interest to make all your clients CPFs. We need all the friends (and clients) we can get, right?

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May 3, 2011

The Senior Issue

Filed under: Career Advice,Leadership — Joe Grant @ 6:00 pm

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There’s a serious and potentially heart-wrenching problem in many agencies that bubbles just below audible conversation: senior executives no longer justifying their keep. It affects everyone. And it’s time to talk about it.

Here’s the problem.  People work awfully hard in our business and use up a lot of themselves in the process. That may be why in their 50s some conclude they’re not going to get a whole lot further than where they already are, so why push so hard? Maybe I can coast a little and still be well paid. I’ll retire soon enough, in a few years. But just not right now.

We call these people the “soon retiring” or SRs.

To some an SR who’s contributing less and less to the bottom line can appear to be selfishly harvesting profits and bleeding off a 6-figure salary. Toss in perqs (bonus, car, self-approving expense accounts, club memberships, etc.) and there’s a pretty big hole in the bucket.

Would the money spent on an SR yield a better return increasing new business efforts, developing new services, buying out a competitor, delivering serious training, or rewarding or hiring stronger talent? That’s the heart of the dilemma because those kind of business opportunities can be seriously thwarted by supporting an SR. More than once we’ve seen an agency starve itself from growth because it was carrying this sort of burden.

Yet it wouldn’t be fair to push that good ole’ SR out to pasture, you say. He or she was there at the beginning, risked so much, spent all those nights and weekends away from home (maybe a divorce along the way?). This is where it gets really torturous. You feel a moral obligation to be fair to folks who’ve given so much.

Alright. Let’s talk about “fair.”

Some say it’s not fair to allow the company to be held hostage by a highly paid but no-longer-as-productive SR. It’s not fair to those at full song trying to move the company forward. Ambitious younger people may seek opportunity elsewhere…and suddenly your competition has all the good talent.

OK, but what about “loyalty” and “reward”? Doesn’t the SR deserve a cushy last few years at the end of the work rainbow? Maybe, but some argue there shouldn’t be an unspecified “obligation” to keep anybody aboard indefinitely.

Reading this far you’re probably disappointed we haven’t revealed some bromide to fix this issue. Believe me, having guided several agencies through these treacherous waters there is no one-size-fits-all answer. It’s a tight complex knot of human compassion, economics, emotional baggage and unspoken expectations.

But there are a few guidelines we use when helping agencies unravel these sensitive problems:

1. Eliminate denial. Don’t pretend it isn’t happening or will fix itself. You, the senior team, and the SR must acknowledge that something’s out of whack. Face up to it because it’s the kind of thing you get paid to face up to. A Chinese proverb we’re fond of instructs that the beginning of wisdom is calling things by their right name.

2. See the whole picture. Decisions about SRs rest on the leadership team’s responsibility to do the best forallemployees. These difficult resolutions have to be right for the company and its health, not just the convenience of a few.

3. Dignity is fundamental. That’s dignity for all. Resolve to honor everyone’s ego and emotional needs as well as your own sanity and good conscience. I’m here to tell you that you can craft solutions which can sustain self-esteem and not make people feel like dirt.

4. Be fair. But don’t confuse fairness with generosity. Sometimes those of us with soft hearts make really dumb business decisions because our emotions overpower common sense. Your actions must be consistent with the firm’s core purpose and values. Remember that treating one person with a heavy dose of “fairness” at the expense of others is wrong too. Principles by definition are ecumenical.

5. Get outside perspective. It’s a sure bet that you’re too close to the situation to see it objectively because, ironically, you know too much. Seek off-site counsel – all parties deserve it.

6. Be safe. Wearing a life jacket doesn’t mean you hope to end up in the water. Get legal guidance before any precipitous decisions.

One more thing. We better figure this out or the well-meaning baby-boomer SRs will unconsciously throttle down a lot of otherwise healthy agencies. Remember, the clock ticks for all of us. YOU’LL be an SR some day.

We all will.

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